Let us begin with a common scenario.
You get a speeding ticket. This ticket is a transgression of traffic law, resulting in a fine that must be paid. While the ticket remains unpaid or unaccounted for, you live under a debt. You are, essentially, under a judgement. Paying the ticket, however, releases you from this judgement. In paying the fine, the consequences of the transgression are met, and you can live your life in a renewed relationship with the legal system.
What does this have to do with propitiation and expiation? Well, we often employ these terms to speak about our relationship with God. These terms are theologically dense and highly nuanced. Most importantly, there is a legal connotation to these words. Despite this legal connotation, propitiation and expiation are not dry or lifeless words. Rather, they describe our personal interaction with the cross. They speak about us. Knowing the subtle nuances behind these terms, then, helps us uncover the radical message of the gospel. To rightly understand these terms, however, we must also explore other biblical terminology, such as “sacrifice,” “wrath,” and “atonement.” Such a linguistic study may seem overly scholarly or pedantic, yet knowing these words strengthens our faith and helps us receive the good news of Jesus Christ in a deeper and fuller way.
What do these terms mean exactly? Is expiation simply another word for propitiation, which is just another word for forgiveness? Are there subtle differences between these two terms? Below is a brief look at some of the nuances behind these two important words.
The Meaning of Propitiation
Propitiation refers to any act by which an individual softens the anger of another. In the ancient world, the word was commonly used to describe a ritual sacrifice through which one would avert the punishment of the gods. Importantly, propitiation was a human activity. One would make a sacrifice to stay the vengeance of the deity. In the example of the speeding ticket, propitiation would refer to the act of paying the ticket. Paying the speeding ticket appeases the anger of the courts.
There are two fundamental differences in the way scripture speaks of propitiation as opposed to the more popular and ancient usage. Firstly, rather than appeasing God’s anger, propitiation is understood to assuage God’s “wrath.” This may seem like splitting hairs, but the nuance between wrath and anger is critical. Some may be uncomfortable with the idea that God’s anger had to be appeased through Christ’s death on the cross. Rightly so. Wrath, biblically speaking, does not describe an emotion. When Paul states, “we were deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), he is not describing God’s emotional outlook toward humanity. God is steadfastly loving and infinitely merciful. Wrath refers to the consequences of living in a state of constant opposition to God. Scripturally, then, propitiation describes an action that removes the consequences of one’s opposition to God.
More importantly, however, the biblical use of propitiation describes something that God does for humanity, not something humanity does for God. Rather than being a sacrifice we make to soften the anger of a rage-filled deity, the Bible describes how God takes the initiative to remove the consequences of sinful transgression. John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This verse describes Jesus as God’s loving response to human sin. Jesus laid down his life as an act of love, a sacrifice of redemption.
Propitiation, then, is rooted in love, not anger. It is an act of grace. We make a grievous error if we believe that God the Father was seething with rage at sin-filled humanity until the time that Jesus died. Christ’s death on the cross did not “turn God’s frown upside down!” This is a misunderstanding of propitiation and a misreading of the scriptures. Jesus came to show us the Father, not mellow the Father’s hot emotions. Biblically, propitiation for our sins is found only in the love of God, as revealed in the sacrifice of Jesus.
The Meaning of Expiation
In some respects, the meaning of expiation is very close to the meaning of propitiation; the two are almost identical. There are, however, subtle differences. Whereas propitiation describes the act of making peace – paying the ticket - expiation refers to the benefit we experience because of that propitiation.
Expiation means to extinguish a transgression. One no longer stands judged or condemned because the offense is removed, never to return. In the example of the speeding ticket, expiation would refer to the renewed relationship with the legal system resulting from the payment of the ticket. Once payment is made, the ticket no longer exists. Thus, there is no longer an infraction to be judged. The same principle applies here. Christ makes expiation for our sin by rendering the offense of sin null and void. “As far as east is from west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Sin is removed from our lives through Christ’s death on the cross. This results in our ability to enjoy an unrestricted relationship with God once again. Whereas propitiation refers to what God does in response to our sin, expiation refers to the forgiveness we realize because of Christ’s sacrifice.
The biblical word often used to describe this renewed relationship is the word “atonement.” In fact, in many ways, the words expiation and atonement are interchangeable. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood” (3:25). We could replace the word atonement with the word expiation, and the meaning would be the same. Atonement means to be made one with something through the removal of that which separates. When the word is taken apart, atonement means “at-one-ment.” Scripturally, then, atonement refers to the re-establishment of a covenant relationship with God.
In the Old Testament, atonement was made through the sacrifice at the temple. In Christ, this atonement shifted away from the continual sacrifice of animals to the one-time sacrifice of Christ on the cross. On the cross, Jesus extinguished the spiritual forces of sin and death. This means the forces of sin and death have no more power over human life, for we have been forgiven. In Christ, there is no more transgression by which we are judged. Sin is expiated, or removed, from us. Thus, we are eternally forgiven and free to live in renewed intimacy with God. God and humanity are “at-one.” This is a perfect definition of expiation.
How Propitiation and Expiation Work Together
Propitiation and expiation are so closely related that we cannot speak about one without understanding the other. In fact, wherever the benefit of expiation is found, the act of propitiation is implied. One simply cannot have an offense removed apart from an act of sacrifice. Biblically, we cannot live in the state of atonement with God apart from the sacrifice of Jesus.
A great way to think about this is to think about the connection between the crucifixion and resurrection. The two are inherently tied together. One cannot speak of the resurrection without referencing the crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, the resurrection is nonsensical; without the resurrection, the crucifixion holds no meaning. The two must be held together and be understood to refer to one thing: God’s loving gift of salvation.
Ultimately, this is how we understand the interrelation between propitiation and expiation. Propitiation refers to the activity of Jesus. Propitiation describes Jesus enduring the cross as a living sacrifice for us. John states that Jesus is the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice, for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). Expiation, on the other hand, refers to the effects and benefits of that sacrifice. We are forgiven because Jesus died on the cross. Sin and death have no more dominion in human life; their power has been stripped. And just like the crucifixion and resurrection, propitiation and expiation must be held together and be seen to refer to one thing: the removal of sin through Christ’s sacrifice of the cross. In this way, they articulate the power of the gospel and how the love of Jesus affects the salvation of our souls.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Olgachov
Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.